Sep 19, 2023, 05:55AM

The Dark Night of Her Soul

Lauren Groff’s new novel.

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A beautiful book can emerge, suddenly, from the muddy ashes of a dozen failures. Lauren Groff—a novelist who’s reinvented the English language for 11 years, starting with Arcadia—released The Vaster Wilds last week. It’s a wonder. It’s a work of tremendous imagination, even though full of obvious precedents. Matrix, for example, Groff’s overstrained prior novel, seethes beneath the surface. Matrix was an angry, sentimental dream about feminist revolutions Groff tried to make reality pregnant with. Now, however, her revolutions blossom differently, real as an early spring, but silent and incommunicable. The world according to Groff is a deleted footnote; it’s a scream confided to a pillow or tree. The world keeps on burning, all the while, unaware. The Vaster Wilds is full of ecstasy and insight, but they are tempered by a solemn recognition that such peak states neither lead us far enough, nor last very long.

Groff’s novel sucks the marrow from half a dozen novels by Cormac McCarthy, including The Road, a terrible blockbuster that showed its lightless gray insides when it proved impossible to turn into a watchable film. I don’t know if you even remember The Road; I do, because I was dumb enough to write an essay about it. Here’s McCarthy’s silly, “spiritual” climax:

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

And here’s Groff’s revitalized version of it:

The set of her mind then became soft and infinitely open, and as she gazed down into the water, she saw in the depths below her, playing in and out of the boat’s shadow, a swift great gray fish that might have been a porpoise like the ones that had danced around the ship’s wake as they rode across the face of the ocean. And now it came up, came near; and there was something in the shining glimpse, the liquid black eye of the fish gazing up at her as it passed out of the shadow into the light, that made her say, Yes, aloud, and gasp. There was an element in the trembling intensity of this vision so unlike the other most dazzling moments of her life that, for a breath, it pierced the little cloud of dullness in which she normally moved through her days. And it seemed to her that she could almost see something now moving beneath the everyday, the daily, the gray and oppressive stuff of the self, something more like an intricate geometry that lived beneath the surface of the material world.

I don’t know if fish like this really exist, but I believe in them. Groff casually discards everything about McCarthy’s “brook trout” that doesn’t lead us closer to God. She drops the precious Linnaean typology (“brook trout,” thumbed from some old copy, that McCarthy owns and reveres, of A Sportsman’s Guide to American Fish). She ditches all his pointless verbiage, including his excessively gawpy “torsional” and that in-all-ways-unforgivable word “vermiculate.” Most important, she discards the bleary melancholy of longing for things that don’t exist anymore, now that the world has gone all wrong and pear-shaped on us. Maybe fish as mazy as God’s knuckles still darken the waters of undisturbed pools; does it matter? That is the question. If there was a pattern to the world, would you risk bearing witness to it? Would you even know such beauty for what it was? Questions like that turn to opal in Groff’s capable fiction. They give us light; they fairly strike out at us with light.

Groff doesn’t divide the world into McCarthy’s unequal halves. For a writer like him, there are the lost secular cannibals, their minds overgrown with un-weeded evils, and then there are the visionaries. These rare, blessed seers become prisoners of the last paved, open roads, walking faster than any gang of febrile, feral mouth-breathers chasing them can run. For Groff, however, febrile and feral is a choice like any other. Her novel describes a lost, battered woman seeking refuge in the wilderness. She disturbs a hermit in his lair.

Groff brings the hermit to life at speed, sifting him out ofsilty, merciless paragraphs: “He began to believe of himself that he was a holy hermit, that he had been directed to the wilderness by the invisible hand of god and held there to do the work of god. He called himself Sanctus Ioannes Cavae Arboris.” But God never speaks to the good man, and God never eases the spiny difficulties of living alone in a forest devoid of human intentions. So the hermit becomes a war unto himself. He’s torn between slaying the girl and satisfying himself on top of her. But he’s still not, at any point, a godless savage. He calls out to God without ceasing. Attacking a lost girl becomes, in his mind, the sincerest kind of prayer.

For her, Groff’s hero, God’s grace is visible in the small, chance-drunk paths we carve out, for ourselves, whenever we encounter untamed wilderness. The wilderness is so vast that, as poet Mary Oliver once put it, “You do not have to be good.” You can steal eggs from beneath nesting quail; you can steal nuts from baby squirrels. You can bash out the brains of an unwary fish. You can die of some disease animals don’t catch. You can survive a bear. These things all happen, or almost happen, in The Vaster Wilds, and somehow the effect isn’t just bracing, but cleansing. It’s as though all the alibis we’ve created, to ward the wilderness away, start peeling right off. I’m talking about something like that Werner Herzog movie, Grizzly Man, where a man gets eaten by the bears he loves too much—or, if you prefer, Into the Wild, where a boy gets tetanus (and dies) from a bunch of rusty hippie ideals. In The Vaster Wilds, a woman doesn’t get eaten by a bear because the bear doesn’t care that she exists. The natural world around Groff’s heroine has no agenda; it doesn’t even exist in order to prove that God is real. That is, ironically, precisely the humble attitude that enables the author’s mysticism to stick.

W. B. Yeats once famously remarked that “we make poetry” out of “the quarrel with ourselves.” It seemed to me, as I was reading The Vaster Wilds, that Groff was describing a world where God must be achieved, realized, by human minds and gentle hands. But then I hesitated. Groff suddenly felt too right, too sympathetic; all I was doing, it seemed, was reading my own theology into her story. I bet that’ll happen to lots of readers. A deep ecologist will find deep ecology. A feminist will find feminism. A conservationist will imagine the whole novel taking place inside Yosemite. There are long arguments that ought to be fought over this novel. For it’s a test. The reader constantly fails that test, but survives it, reading on, doubting her senses. And grace, measured as the capacity to endure, is what we stumble away from this novel clutching. I don’t care that, ultimately, Groff’s personal vision of divinity is lifted from “The Snow Man,” by Wallace Stevens: “Nothing that is not there/And the nothing that is.” Her book ends without the slightest hope that we’ve finished it. Thank God something as rare as that has, at last, arrived.


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